Surprises and Disappointments of the League One Season

Credit Graham Burrell

At the beginning of the season, I did my 1-24 predictions, as I’m sure a lot of supporters did.

In the absence of any weekend action to analyse, I have decided to pull my predictions and see if I was on the right lines, and which teams have impressed or failed over the course of the last 37-40 odd matches.

You can find the original article here, just so you know I’m not pulling your leg when I tell you that as things stand, I have 13 of the 24 within two places of where they are right now, with three of the current bottom four and four of the top six.

I appreciate the season isn’t over just yet, but as things stand this is the league table. My predictions are in the left hand column, the current position in the middle, and the difference on the right. With that in mind, who have been the surprise packages, and who have been the biggest disappointments?

Surprise – Lincoln City

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Let’s start close to home, shall we? I shouted the Imps to finish 12th and we are currently 6th. I ran the projected finishing program earlier too, and it is predicting a sixth-placed finish for City, meaning a potential play-off place. To some, this is no surprise, but to me, it is the third-biggest of the season.

What has delivered this apparent shock? Maybe a little pessimism on my part, but I have been within a couple of places for four seasons in a row, so to be so far out with nine games to go is a surprise to me. I know we’ve been in a better place in terms of our league position, but I’m not sure we have in terms of our squad for some time. Remember, almost every player is contracted for next season, and that hopefully means more of the same if we fail to go up.

I think the major factor for the difference in prediction and actual current placing is the squad, and how quickly it has gelled under Michael Appleton. I suspect a few felt we had a team that looked far too inexperienced on paper, but that hasn’t proven to be the case on the field and were it not for injuries, I think we’d be a lot higher.

Disappointment – Bristol Rovers

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Bristol Rovers have been a disappointment in terms of my prediction and where they are, with a six-place difference. I shouted them to finish 15th, I felt the capture of Zain Westbrooke, as well as Max Ehmer, gave them a steady footing to build upon. I would have stood by my choice earlier in the season after they beat us 2-1 I felt they had enough to kick on and make League One football secure by Easter. Sadly (for them), that isn’t the case although a strong win against Doncaster could lead to an upturn in form.

What has been the problem this season? Joey Barton, the current incumbent of the manager’s role, believes malaise and complacency is to blame. Having three different managers certainly doesn’t help, and the disaster that was Paul Tisdale certainly set them on a collision course with League Two. Personally, I think Barton has enough to keep them up at the expense of Swindon Town, who I also currently have underperforming.

Surprise – MK Dons

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I know plenty of you dislike MK Dons for the way they came into existence, but I’ve got a big surprise for you. This season, their fans have been amongst the easiest and most pleasant to deal with. I’ve chatted to a couple of different podcasts and (along with Crewe and Portsmouth), the MK fans have been complimentary of us, warm and inviting and honest in their appraisals. Think what you will of their club, but I no longer fall into the camp of disliking them. Hell, there is enough wrong with football right now to leave the MK thing in the past (this coming from a man who boycotted the best mascot event of the calendar back in 2005/06 because of my feelings).

So, why have they been such a surprise? I had them down to finish 20th and they’re currently 13th in the table. A play-off push is beyond them, but I think they’re developing quickly for next season. I guess I felt players like Conor McGrandles and Joe Walsh leaving signalled their demise, and I wasn’t completely sold on Russell Martin after he seemed a cheap option appointment last season. I was wrong – he plays a nice brand of football and although it took a few months to find a settled and consistent squad, I think he has that now. I have a feeling they may be the team I get most wrong by the time game 46 has been completed because there are more wins in the pipeline. I just hope one isn’t against us a week today.

Disappointment  Oxford Utd

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I don’t like Karl Robinson. I’ll put that out there now. I’m not sure why, but there is something about him I don’t like. He’s a bit like a poor man’s Steve Evans with his antics and his moaning, not quite Grade A villain material, but still a man who has me closing down when his mouth opens. That aside, I felt they’d be real contenders this season, but back-to-back defeats over the Easter period have effectively ended their interest in the top six. If we hadn’t been Covid-ravaged when we went there the other week, I have little doubt we’d have turned them over as well.

What has gone wrong? I feel that a couple of player losses in 2020 damaged their momentum. Losing Baptiste, Fosu and loan man Marcus Browne left a huge creative void and they haven’t been able to fill that, whilst at the back Rob Dickie’s departure hit them hard too. On paper, their summer signings looked strong, Sean Clare, Marcus McGuane and Liam Kelly all looked likely to make a big impact. Clare is out on loan, McGuane has been injured and endured a tough campaign at best and Kelly has been okay, but not outstanding. That, along with an awful start, scuppered their hopes of another top-six finish and increases pressure on Robinson to perform next season.

Biggest Surprise – Accrington

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I don’t know why this is even a surprise, because every year I write them off and every year, they prove me wrong. I shouted them as bottom four this season, and they’re currently 11th, a ten placed difference and the biggest surprise in my eyes.

I can’t put my finger on what it is about them that keeps them performing well. They were unlucky to draw with us 2-2 earlier this year, and in Dion Charles they have unearthed yet another gem. He showed his class against us, whilst elsewhere they have a team built around hard work, togetherness and spirit. I thought the Covid situation would kill them off financially, and yet here they are, fighting for a top-six spot (probably a bit beyond them now) and proving everyone wrong. Or, maybe it is just me who keeps writing them off. Even now, I look through their squad and still wonder how they are above Fleetwood, Crewe, MK Dons and Oxford and that is a compliment, not a critcism. They are a team far greater than the sun of its parts, and I imagine they have surprised many more than just me.

Biggest Disappointment – Fleetwood

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Without a doubt, the biggest disappointment for me this season has to be Fleetwood. I had them down for a top-six finish, and even after our 0-0 draw there earlier in the season, I felt they’d be competitive. On paper, they had a great squad at the start of the season, McKay, Evans, Madden, Morris, Camps, Rossiter… the list went on and on. Joey Barton seemed to be on the right trajectory as a manager too and I just couldn’t see what could go wrong.

As we know, plenty did. Barton fell out with Ched Evans, and ultimately ended up leaving the club around the same time the striker did. Madden, a player I feel had plenty to offer League One, oddly joined Stockport a few weeks ago and in Simon Grayson, they appointed a manager who defines underwhelming for me. Still, they came and beat us, so I suppose I ought to pipe down a bit.

On November 21st, they were one place and one point behind us. On February 27th, 14 places and 20 points separated the two clubs. I’m still a little baffled as to what went wrong, doubtless, there are reasons, but I just didn’t see their collapse coming. They do seem to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance, starting with their win against us they have picked up 14 points from eight games, but it won’t be enough to get them to where I thought they’d be.